By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Don’t let it go to your head, Hawaii Island. There’s still plenty of room for improvement.
That’s what area health experts say in response to the news that the United Health Foundation ranked Hawaii this week as the nation’s second healthiest state.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Health announced Hawaii’s ascendance from last year’s ranking of third place. Only residents in Vermont are considered to be healthier, according to the 23-year-old annual America’s Health Rankings.
“This year’s improved ranking is encouraging and reflects the efforts of Governor (Neil) Abercrombie and the work of the department to improve the health of our state,” said Health Director Loretta Fuddy via a press release. “The state has taken many positive steps in the last year, but chronic disease and obesity are still major growing concerns, especially when it comes to our children. We must turn the tide on these issues for our next generation.”
Sharon Vitousek, head of the Hawaii Island Healthcare Alliance, agreed with that sentiment on Friday. She said that area residents must keep in mind that in measures of many important health factors, the Big Island often lags behind the rest of the state. And, while Hawaii may compare favorably with the rest of the nation when it comes to things like obesity, that’s not saying much compared with other nations.
“Here on Hawaii Island, especially in the area of the obesity ranking, we do surprisingly well. But people need to remember that the nation as a whole is doing terribly. (The ranking) isn’t a reason to sit back and relax. We can always do better,” she said.
According to the ranking report, the state has one of the lowest obesity rates in the nation, with 21.9 percent of adults being obese. It also has fewer smokers — 16.8 percent — and a low rate of preventable hospitalizations, at 25 discharges per 1,000 Medicare enrollees.
By comparison, Mississippi had the highest obesity rate, at 34.9 percent, while Kentucky had the highest smoking rate in the nation, at 29 percent.
Hawaii does have its vices, the report said, including a high prevalence of binge drinking, at 21.5 percent, a low high school graduation rate — 75.3 percent — and a high prevalence for low birthweight, with 8.3 percent of babies weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces at birth.
According to Vitousek, Hawaii Island faces many health challenges in comparison with the rest of the state, including high instances of diabetes and heart disease. Much of that can be attributed to Hawaii Island’s lower economic opportunity, and the fact that primary care providers are few and far between here.
“A key difference in the health of Hawaii County is inadequate access to primary care,” she said. “Because of the large provider shortage on Hawaii Island, many folks don’t have a primary care ‘medical home.’”
There are a number of initiatives working to help improve access to primary care, she said, including the Hawaii Island Beacon Community, which is operating on a federal grant to improve health outcomes here.
“Beacon is working on helping physicians’ offices become ‘medical homes’ and improve access,” Vitousek said.
Additionally, the Hilo Family Practice Residency Program is working to attract and retain doctors nurses and clinical pharmacists as they complete their medical training requirements.
“There are lots of state health rankings, and Hawaii’s ranking varies depending on what indicators are tracked,” she added. “We ranked high in (United Health Foundation’s) in part because of the excellent job our Department of Health has done on smoking cessation. Also, because of our climate and culture, we have the opportunity for more physical activity, so we have slightly less obesity and slightly less diabetes than the nation. That’s all on the positive side.
“On the less positive side, Hawaii state has a higher suicide death rate and Hawaii County has a suicide epidemic.”
For more information on the 2012 America’s Health Rankings, visit www.americashealthrankings.org/rankings.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.